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'Cold-cock' is defined and attested in OED Online as

cold-cock v. (trans.) to knock (a person) unconscious (U.S. slang).
1927 Amer. Speech 2 351/1 Cold cocked, to be knocked senseless. ‘Tom was cold cocked when that rock hit him.’
1934 J. T. Farrell Young Manhood (1936) iv. 205 They cold-cocked him, and left him unconscious.

["cold, adj.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed August 02, 2016).]

An earlier attestation is internally redundant with the OED definition:

coldcock1 coldcock2

(The Topeka state journal. (Topeka, Kan.), 08 May 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.)

  1. Are there earlier examples of this term, 'cold-cock', in use and, if so, what evidence do they provide about its origin and development?

A similar but much earlier phrase, 'knock into a cocked hat', has a marked semantic and lexical relationship to 'cold-cock':

to knock into a cocked hat. orig. U.S.
1833 J. K. Paulding Banks of Ohio I. 217, I told Tom..I'd knock him into a cocked-hat, if he said another word.
....
1888 Pall Mall Gaz. 26 Jan. 9/1 A frigate of the modern type would knock a fort armed with obsolete guns into a cocked hat.
1965 Listener 26 Aug. 314/3 The splendid earthworks and engineering structures of the railways today..knock the M.1 into a cocked hat.

["cocked hat, n.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed August 02, 2016).]

  1. Do early examples of 'cold-cock' (from 1, above) provide any direct evidence that the earlier phrase, 'knock into a cocked hat', influenced the development of 'cold-cock'?
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  • Note the other meanings for 'cock': cock a gun (to set up a gun), cocked up (for messed up), a rooster, all of which could be sources for the meaning. – Mitch Aug 2 '16 at 13:07
  • @Mitch - why don't you elaborate that comment into a full answer? you could come up with some interesting findings. – user66974 Aug 2 '16 at 15:15
  • @Josh61 My comment is only that, a bunch of unclear ideas. Your answer was pretty good...why did you delete it? – Mitch Aug 2 '16 at 15:30
  • @Mitch - It doesn't really answer the question in full, I need to do more reserch on the possible relationship between the two expressions. – user66974 Aug 2 '16 at 15:38
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Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) suggest entirely separate etymologies for the two terms. Here is the entry for "knock ... into a cocked hat":

knock something into a cocked hat v phr by 1833 To demolish, esp. to disprove, invalidate, or show the falsity of a statement, plea, etc: This knocks our whole case into a cocked hat {literally "flatten," since a naval officer's cocked hat could be flattened}

And here is the entry for coldcock:

coldcock by 1918 1 v To knock someone unconscious; = KNOCK someone OUT [examples omitted] 2 n The act of knocking someone unconscious quickly before the victim can resist {origin uncertain, perhaps fr the hammering of caulking into a boat's or ship's seams; perhaps related to Canadian loggers' put the caulks to someone, "stamp in someone's face with spiked boots"}

Cold-caulk does sometimes appear as an alternative spelling to cold-cock with the same meaning, going back at least to 1936; and "cold caulking" as a form of caulking is discussed in numerous publications from the 1910s, so the chronology is plausible—but I haven't seen any other source make this claim.

The Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary (2001) finds a different origin for cold-cock more probable:

coldcock vt to knock somebody unconscious, especially with a blunt instrument (slang) {Early 20C. Probably from the idea of knocking somebody cold with a blunt instrument such as a COCK "faucet."}

On this point, we do see an advertisement for Chapman Plumbing & Supply Co. in the [Canton, Ohio] Stark County Democrat (March 31, 1910), for a washstand with "Guaranteed Porcelain Enamel. China Index hot and cold Cocks, Nickel Bibbs, Trap and trimmings," but how widespread cock was for faucet or tap in 1910 is not immediately clear.

A writer in the American Dialect Society Publication, issue 21 (1954) [combined snippets], meanwhile, takes a Freudian approach to analyzing the genesis of the term:

The word colcock, rather widely used in South Carolina, meaning to knock out, to knock unconscious, is not dialectal, but gangster slang. It is probably derived from the name of a type of blackjack consisting of a leathern pouch, five or six inches long, filled with shot and used by gangsters to blackjack their victims. Its resemblance to membrum virile flaccidum would give rise to the name. In the American Thesaurus of Slang, cold-cock is defined either as a knock-out blow, or, as a verb, to knock out. But in spite of the fact that cold cock has not as yet been found in the sense of a blackjack, I am persuaded that this is the origin of the slang word. This theory was suggested to me by one of our correspondents.

The term cold-cock may well have arisen as slang in the late stages of World War I, to judge from this excerpt from "Statement of Capt. Charles M. Stephens, 12th FA." in Hearings Before Subcommittee No. 3 (Foreign Expenditures) of the Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department (1920), describing events that occurred on September 23, 1918, and afterward:

On the night of September 23, 1918, I was arrested and confined at Hotel St. Anne, Paris, France, upon the complaint of the Swiss proprietor of the Hotel Montana, who, because I had questioned and protested a large overcharge in my hotel bill, used this form of blackmail to force me to pay whatever he liked.

...

By this time Capt. Adams, A. P. M., came in. He intimated that if I didn't get upstairs and be quick about it, that I would be "cold cocked" or words to that effect, and carried up.


Conclusions

The term cold-cocked seems to have arisen in the vicinity of 1918. Theories of its origin range from caulking the seams of a boat, to striking someone with a blunt object such as a water faucet ("cock"), or to striking someone with a blackjack that resembles in shape and size a flaccid human penis. None of the reference works I consulted, however, made any connection between cold-cocked and "knocked into a cocked hat."

It may be noteworthy that, by the time cold-cock arrived in U.S. slang, "knock into a cocked hat" may (as Chapman & Kipfer assert) have become more commonly associated with knocking something into the hat than with knocking someone there. In contrast, cold-cocking is normally associated with knocking out a person.

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  • Yes, I couldn't find any clear relathionship between the two expressions, apart from the suggested similar meaning. – user66974 Aug 4 '16 at 8:20
  • A worthy answer, and it appears no others are forthcoming, so I accept it. Your answer is also well-written--a not entirely expected, nor necessary, bonus. The deletion of @Josh61's answer is disappointing. It is also useful. However, further research led to a tantalizing suggestion of more profit from Some expressions from Herman Melville (19th cent.), where 'cold-cock' v.t. is defined as "to hurl, dart, fling in a decisive manner". Chasing the book down at a local library was fruitless; the Google Books source appears to be in error. A further lead given as from Am. Speech vol. 2 ... – JEL Aug 9 '16 at 20:06
  • ... gave "cocked hat of you, to moke (verb phrase), to give one a good thrashing" was also tantalizing (in terms of the semantic connection between the expressions), but I was unable to readily access Am. Speech vol. 2 (1927). and had to abandon the pursuit. – JEL Aug 9 '16 at 20:08
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I think we may be talking the wrong caulk. When you caulk a wooden ship, hot pine tar and oakum would be forced into the seam using caulking irons and a mallet. If you had to do this "cold" one would expect you would need to hit much much harder with the mallet to drive the Caulking into the seam. Cold Caulking would = hitting vary hard

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  • Thanks. That's certainly an observation worth throwing into the mix, although, despite the current homophony in some dialects, there's no indication in the forms attested (OED) that 'caulk' and 'cock' are related, and no textual evidence (that I know of) that 'cold-cock' is a misspelling of 'cold caulk'. – JEL Aug 15 '16 at 9:26
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Misspelling is very common especially prior to Webster's famous dictionary, and a misspelling of "cold-caulk" seems very likely. I think it makes the most sense of any of the explanations. It definitely implies someone with unusual strength (and skill?) who is able to pound something or someone very hard.

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  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please explain your answer, preferably with some supporting statements and references. While opinions are valued, they are not of much help as answers. – NVZ Nov 3 '16 at 15:13
  • Before formal dictionaries were established, there was no such thing as normalized English spelling, and therefore earlier instances of spelling variants cannot be called misspellings. Furthermore, Webster was by no means the first English dictionary. – tchrist Nov 3 '16 at 16:28

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